Watson, Don: The Bush

Watson, Don

The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia, Penguin, Melbourne, 2014; e-book available

Most Australians live in cities and cling to the coastal fringe, yet our sense of what an Australian is – or should be – is drawn from the vast and varied inland called the bush. But what do we mean by “the bush”, and how has it shaped us? (blurb)

Looks at the bush as it was and is, ‘the stories we like to tell about ourselves and the national character, and those we don’t … The Bush lets us see our landscape and its inhabitants afresh, examining what we have made, what we have destroyed, and what we have become in the process.’ Has an extensive bibliography.

This joins the collection of many books on the Honest History website about things and influences which are said to have made us what we are, from war to depression, bushfire to beaches, camping to mining. (Look them up using our Search function.) In some ways it casts back to Watson’s early work, Caledonia Australis (1984), about Scotsmen in Gippsland, and bears some comparisons with his work about travelling in the United States, American Journeys (2008). The book is extracted in the Sydney Morning Herald, reviewed by Roger McDonald, Paul Daley, Tom Keneally and John Hirst and discussed by the author on the ABC’s Bush Telegraph and Late Night Live. Rosemary Sorensen reviews it at length in the Sydney Review of Books.

The book ranges widely, the breadth of each chapter’s concerns indicated by headnotes. In three chapters in the middle of the book, for example, Watson muses about Gippsland, Byron Bay, Lismore, the Mallee, the saltbush plains, unlocking the land, squatters and selectors, Goyder’s Line, drought, Soldier Settlement, irrigation schemes, the Murray-Darling Basin, frontier towns, dying towns turning to tourism, farming compared with mining, land reclamation, what rain does to the landscape, climate change, evolution, Narrandera and Walgett.

The beauty of Watson’s writing still leaves a lurking misgiving about the depth of his insights. One reviewer suggests Watson is ‘all over the place’. Indeed, some sections of the book are no more than boilerplate travel writing while others are deeply numinous. It would be fairer, though, to compare the book to the gum leaves on Watson’s grandmother’s veranda in an early chapter: depending on which way up they lie, some leaves are easy to sweep up, others remain unharvested. Perhaps, as the days recede when the bush was a larger part of our reality than it is now, so also recedes our capacity to capture its essence. But then some things are incomprehensible and this should not greatly concern us.

Don Watson at Writers’ Week, Adelaide, 2015.

David Stephens

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